Swamp Fever

The canoe was hardly the proper boat but we didn’t care. Toby, Doug and Bob paddled it out of Five Mile River and into Long Island Sound. It was a beautiful day for the fourteen year old boys, the sky a crystalline blue with puffy bright white cumulus clouds hanging lazily above. It was 85 degrees out and the water was a tepid 72. Summer on the Connecticut shore. Bob had been grounded from his Boston Whaler after taking it up to New Haven and motoring into the restricted area of the submarine works. Naval Shore Patrol had given him a stiff bracing and sent him off; no direct punishment, what they did was worse. The bastards called the house and reported the infraction to his mother. She, in turn, mentioned it to Bob’s father who took the matter up with Bob. The result was losing the keys to the Whaler for two precious weeks.

This left the three musketeers with Toby’s canoe and pseudo-tugboat, the Phoebe B. Bebe, a tipsy double ended dory with a 5 horse Johnson sitting in a center well to drive it. The boat could barely get out of its own way no less pull a skier and so Bob’s father’s punishment took a pound of summer flesh from not just Bob but his two friends as well. They were making the best of it, and thus were paddling a two-man canoe laden with the trio. They rounded the point when some schmuck in a 30 foot inboard skiff ignored the No Wake placards and opened his throttle. The effect on the canoe, with only two inches of freeboard between the water surface and the gunwale was predictable. The boys all watched the two foot wake sweep towards them and tried frantically to turn the bow into the wave. The roller hit them in a quartering angle and water flooded over the gunwale and swamped the canoe instantly. Treading water, they looked angrily at the skiff to see the captain holding up his middle finger up in their direction as he plowed out into the sound.

The boys tried to roll the canoe inverted, lift it and roll it back afloat but didn’t have the strength (or buoyancy) to pull it off. They ended up dragging it over to the rocky shoreline where they managed to empty it out and refloat it. They spent the afternoon paddling it around back and forth between the mouth of the river and the Tokeneke Beach Club, inspecting the bottom in the shallows for different sea life. Not a very productive endeavor, all they found was a horseshoe crab and a few jellyfish. Oh, Toby found an old rubber boot. Pretty much bored and with evening coming, they paddled back to Five Mile River to reach the back side of Butler’s Island and the marshes where Toby’s family had a dock. Five Mile River is a misnomer. It’s neither five miles long nor is it a river. It’s a very skinny inlet with a creek at the inland end feeding into it. The boys were again rounding the point and turning into the river when that same jerk came between the channel buoys on plane. He saw the kids in the canoe and turned toward them, dropping the throttle suddenly as he neared. He sheared off and idled up the river to where he moored his boat, leaving the hapless kids to deal with the huge bow wave his dropping throttle created in addition to his wake. Once again they got swamped only to see him shoot them the bird again.

“What’d we ever do to him?” wailed Doug.

“Beats me,” panted Toby, treading water.

“I never saw him before today.” Bob said. They all shrugged and again pushed the canoe to the shore and repeated the refloating task. By the time they finally paddled their way to Toby’s dock they were pretty tuckered out. The boys pulled the canoe on shore and laid it upside down on the wooden rack Toby’s dad had made. It had a chain and combination lock bolted to it that Toby hitched to the canoe to prevent it from disappearing. They all sat on the little dock, feet hanging in the water and discussed the guy who’d swamped them not once but twice in one day. On purpose.  Thinking caps on, they couldn’t for the life of them figure out why the guy had such contempt for them.

“He certainly doesn’t like us.” said Toby.

The following day they all packed into the Phoebe B. Bebe, the unstable dory, to attempt a trip out to the lighthouse at Greens Ledge. The sound was very calm with only a light breeze, otherwise they’d have never risked it. They motored thyeir way from the tidal basin around the island to the mouth of the river when here comes that sea skiff again. He passed so close they could have spit into the boat with ease –and probably should have. The Phoebe B. Bebe rocked violently, shipping water over the gunwales by the gallon but it stayed afloat. They watched the skiff rise up on plane and move away, committing her name to memory. “Bondsman” was arched in gold leaf on the transom. The boys abandoned their trip to the lighthouse. “That’s it.” snarled Doug, scooping water with a bailer cup. I think we should tell our parents about that guy.”

Toby said it wouldn’t do any good telling his folks, chances were his father played golf with him because his dad played golf with just about everybody and wouldn’t want to get anyone questioning his handicap. Both of the boys looked at Bob who looked at the retreating Bondsman and back to his friends. ” My dad would think it was funny. I think we need to deal with this ourselves.”  he said. The boys finished bailing out the Phoebe B. Bebe and putted their way back to the tidewater marsh. Bob was silent for most of the trip, deep in thought. On the way back they saw old man Porter mooring his lobster boat. They waved and Porter returned the gesture, albeit with a single finger. Toby and Doug grumbled about the acidic old salt but Bob started smiling.

At home, Bob got great news. His parents were going to Chicago for four days. That meant that he and his sister would be holding the fort on our own, with a few of the neighbors calling to check on us from time to time. No sooner than his mother’s Thunderbird disappeared around the corner of Butler’s Island Road he was rooting in his fathers top dresser drawer. He pulled the keys to his Whaler out triumphantly, smiling at the little red and white float they were attached to. Just after dark, Bob, Toby and Doug were in the Whaler and motoring onto the sound.

The next day it was all the news at the marinas up and down the river. Someone had cut the buoys from old man Porters lobster lines causing the cantankerous fisherman to waste the day dragging for his traps. He was fit to be tied and had asked just about everyone he met on the piers if they knew anything about it. Of course, no one did. As night fell, the boys again met at the Whaler and made another trip out and back under the cover of darkness. In the light of the following day, the Power Squadron was talking to people at the marinas because once again someone had cut the buoys from old man Porters lobster traps. The boys happened to be at Jenkin’s Boatyard gassing the Phoebe B. Bebe when an officer of the Power Squadron approached them. The boys stood in a line as the officer asked them questions in reply to which the boys swore their innocence. Bill Jenkins himself heard the query and explained to the officer that the only vessel the boys had that was suitable out on the sound was “in hack”  and hadn’t been going anywhere, and besides that, the youngsters wouldn’t be out on the water at night anyway. They’d be in bed. This seemed to satisfy the Power Squadron officer who moved along to question other denizens of the marinas.

“We need to take tonight off.” said Bob. “I have a feeling that people will be laying for the culprits and we’re likely to get caught.” So the boys each stayed home and watched television. But the next night they were back out on the water in the purloined Whaler. In the morning there was a lot of bustling activity. Once again someone had cut the buoys from old man Porters trap lines, but this time they’d found one of the floats hanging from the back of a sea skiff moored in the river. Not only that, but twelve sea bass were discovered in a cooler tucked into the cabin. Even if the boat owner possessed a fishing license, which he didn’t, there was a limit of six of any licensed species. The owner of the sea skiff, a Chris Craft named Bondsman, had a lot of explaining to do. As he was being ferried to shore in a Power Squadron launch, three young boys in a canoe smiled widely at the man in custody. He glowered at them only to see them all raise their hands in a one-finger salute.

“I don’t see how come we had to spend money at the fish market.” complained Doug. “I was saving up.”

“Shut up and paddle.” said Toby.